The film is based in New York and Los Angeles and tells the story of the pain and challenges faced by Charlie (played by Adam Driver) and Nicole Barber (played by Scarlett Johansson) as they fall out of love with each other and start the journey of going through a divorce. As their marriage unravels, they promise to each other that they will approach their divorce amicably and remain friends afterwards for the sake of their 8 year old son, Henry. This leads them committing to sorting things out informally without using lawyers.
One of the opening scenes sees Nicole and Charlie with a mediator encouraging them to share the reasons they fell in love with each other in the first place. This request was clearly asking for too much vulnerability and discussions soon broke down but both Nicole and Charlie still shared their desire of having a resolution to their separation without instructing lawyers. This was until Nicole is encouraged by a friend to seek advice from her lawyer, Nora.
In their first meeting, Nicole explains to Nora that she wants to be reasonable, amicable and to play fair. Somehow Nora manipulates Nicole into going along with her aggressive tactics and the next thing you know Charlie is being served with divorce papers and he is being pushed into instructing his own lawyer. He first goes to see a lawyer who advises him he needs to play dirty, take their child, Henry, back from LA to New York and to get a private investigator to look into Nicole, all for a hefty fee. Charlie rejects this advice and consults with a lawyer that he feels understands his priorities of being fair, but a meeting between lawyers and clients soon deteriorates into arguments and chaos.
Unsurprisingly Nicole and Charlie end up in court fighting over the arrangements for Henry and money. Charlie has decided to ditch his first lawyer, instead opting to instruct the bulldog lawyer he first consulted with. There is an explosive scene where the lawyers throw allegations across the court room at each other of child neglect, alcoholism, controlling behaviour and affairs, with both Nicole and Charlie listening in.
Fast forwarding the film, missing out the arguments, invasive meetings from a court appointed child welfare officer and the writing of large cheques for their lawyers, a settlement is reached. Nora boasts that that she had agreed a 45:55 split of Henry’s time in Nicole’s favour despite her saying she wanted a 50:50 shared care arrangement.
I found myself asking “how did they go from so adamantly wanting an amicable divorce to flinging mud at each other in court?” My conclusion was, sadly, that it was primarily the fault of the lawyers. Whilst I must acknowledge the artistic licence at play and that the film is based over the Atlantic, it does go to show the importance of instructing a lawyer that genuinely shares the approach to a divorce that you want to take.
It is, of course, vital that important and relevant issues are considered and debated within any form of negotiation but as in The Marriage Story, the mudslinging and point scoring rarely results in a better outcome. Instead it usually distracts from the real issues leading to unnecessary delays in resolving the conflict and huge damage to relationships along the way, not to mention the increased legal costs.
It is important that the message gets out there that not all family lawyers are like the ones portrayed in this film. There are many family solicitors committed to advising and supporting those going through a divorce in a constructive way, keeping discussions as amicable as possible to help achieve the best outcomes for families. This does not mean by instructing these solicitors that your corner won’t be fought when needed. It does not mean that you will not be provided with good legal advice. It does, however, mean that the advice given is sympathetic to your individual priorities and that care and thought is put into whether sending that email is going to actually help progress discussions or if it is just going to add an extra stumbling block.
The reality is that unfortunately marriages breakdown. If this happens, people often do not know where to turn as there are so many things to think about. The choice should not be between an amicable divorce or instructing a solicitor and ending up in court. It is important to know that an amicable divorce and having a solicitor are not mutually exclusive; you can have both. A solicitor can support, advise and guide you through the difficult time and when they cannot help, signpost you to someone who can.
I am committed to helping those going through a divorce do so constructively and, where possible, amicably especially when there are children involved. I am an accredited family mediator and have helped many couples reach agreements together on how to manage their separation, the arrangements for their children and how their property and finances should be shared between them. The discussions that lead to these agreements are respectful and constructive and much quicker and cheaper than going through court.
I am also a trained collaborative lawyer. The collaborative law process is a far cry from the scenes shown in The Marriage Story. It is a series of meetings where both parties will be supported and advised by their own lawyer, where everyone is committed to resolving issues outside of court in an amicable way. During the meetings we can talk about and explore options to reach agreements on how to move forwards in light of the separation. It allows us to focus on what is important to your family and come up with what are often very unique solutions.
Is it possible to have an amicable divorce? The answer is yes – I have seen it many times. It does not make for the most exciting films, but it leads to better outcomes for families.
If you wish to discuss this article in more detail or require legal advice please contact Andrew Smith or Lilly Grant in our York office, Chris Burns or Sophie Arrowsmith in our Leeds office or Richard Buckley in our Sheffield office.
Please note this information is provided by way of example and may not be complete and is certainly not intended to constitute legal advice. You should take bespoke advice for your circumstances.